Erdoğan’s Purge in Turkey Leaves U.S. With Tough Choice
Rather than simply maintaining control of the Turkish state, Erdoğan’s aims to fundamentally transform it from within.
Blaise Misztal is the director of BPC’s national security program.
The coup attempt in Turkey met with universal condemnation, but the aftermath of its failure presents U.S. policymakers with a much tougher choice. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan undertaking massive purges but promising to help fight the Islamic State, Washington must seemingly choose between its values and interests. But Erdoğan’s excessive response not only threatens Turkey’s democracy, it also weakens its military, jeopardizes its stability, and undermines its value as a U.S. partner.
Erdoğan wasted little time arresting those suspected of plotting against him. His purge, however, goes beyond the requirements of justice, removing thousands of military personnel not directly involved in the coup. Such “coup-proofing,” designed to instill fear and dissuade future putsches, is common in authoritarian states.
Unarmed functionaries cannot violently depose the government; purging them does nothing to protect Erdoğan.
Still, the size and scope of Erdoğan’s purge exceeds even the preemptive logic of coup-proofing. He has targeted not just the security services but also judges, university deans, journalists, and teachers at private schools with over 60,000 arrested or fired. Unarmed functionaries cannot violently depose the government; purging them does nothing to protect Erdoğan.
Rather than simply maintaining control of the Turkish state, Erdoğan’s purge aims to fundamentally transform it from within. Any position of authority — soldier, bureaucrat, teacher — will now require absolute devotion to Erdoğan himself and his ideological vision.
President Obama announced he would “support the democratically elected government of Turkey,” but Washington finds itself nevertheless confronting an increasingly undemocratic ally. To preclude any U.S. resistance, Erdoğan has demonstrated he can rescind U.S. access to Turkish airbases used in the fight against ISIS. Confronted with this choice — what is more important to U.S. interests: Turkey’s democracy or its counter-terrorism assistance? — policymakers should consider the large body of scholarship about coups, purges, and their effects.
The evidence is overwhelming: down the path that Erdoğan is taking Turkey lies both autocracy and instability.
To preclude resistance, Erdoğan has demonstrated he can rescind U.S. access to airbases used in the fight against ISIS.
First, the danger of excess. The magnitude of Erdoğan’s purge, allegations that detainees are being tortured, and his talk of reinstating Turkey’s death penalty, might make what is left of the military less, rather than more, obedient. Violent reprisals against failed coups are rare for good reason. Indeed, the more often and more severely a leader purges, the less likely they are to remain in office.
Second, the danger of weakness. While purges are effective at coup-proofing, they also significantly diminish military effectiveness. This, in turn, raises the likelihood of internal rebellion, ethnic civil wars, and poor performance in interstate wars.
Turkey’s neighbor, Iraq, is a cautionary tale. Following the 2003 invasion, a policy of de-Baathification purged the Iraqi armed forces of predominantly Sunni regime loyalists. This both stoked sectarian strife and left the military incapable of responding to the unrest that followed.
Turkey could face a similar fate. Already over 40 percent of Turkey’s generals and admirals have been arrested or fired — many of them close partners of the U.S. military. This weakening of the military comes as Turkey faces grave security threats.
Turkey is in the midst of an ethnic civil conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The purge has decimated the forces fighting the PKK — including the commander of Turkey’s Second Army, the commander of Incirlik airbase, and many of Turkey’s F-16 pilots — which might embolden the guerilla group to press its advantage. Unless the PKK is restrained by other considerations or outside forces, this conflict could quickly escalate into a civil war. Combined with the Kurds’ fights for autonomy in Iraq and Syria, the potential for a broader, deadlier conflict is a serious concern.
As ISIS loses its perch in Syria and Iraq, it could look to a weakened Turkey as an even more fertile recruiting grounds.
ISIS also poses a grave danger to Turkey. Even before the coup, Defense Secretary Ash Carter chided Ankara that it needed to “do more” against the terrorist group that has launched six attacks in Turkey in the last 14 months, most recently a brazen assault on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. Now, since the gutted Second Army also guards the Syrian border, ISIS’s already significant ability to slip in and out of Turkey could grow further. And a purged Turkish police force will struggle to identify and catch ISIS cells operating within Turkey. As ISIS loses its perch in Syria and Iraq, it could look to a weakened Turkey as an even more fertile recruiting grounds or even operational headquarters.
If these purges continue, Erdoğan will grow stronger and Turkey weaker. And the weaker it gets the more likely it is to find itself in the throes of ethnic or political violence. An autocratic Turkey consumed by battles against the PKK or ISIS would be no partner for the United States. Worse, it would prolong the Middle East’s paroxysms of violence and spread its contagion. Turkey has been — albeit imperfectly and at a cost — a dam keeping the Middle East’s woes from flooding Europe. An escalation of violence in Turkey could launch a wave of migration and terror could do more damage to the European Union than even Brexit.
U.S. interests and values both align behind working to preserve Turkey’s stability by saving its democracy.